Taking Back the River—Land&People

Henry Padilla and his Maywood neighbor, Jesus Gonzales Tomis, have an agreement. A few times a week as Gonzales prepares to leave for work at 4:00 a.m., he walks across the street to the triangle-shaped patch of new grass that sports a decorative green iron bench, a matching trash can, and a few strips of young landscaping. Then, unauthorized, he turns on the municipal sprinklers.

When Padilla and his dog, Happy, come out for their morning walk at seven, Padilla turns off the city sprinklers on this half-acre splash of green just a few dozen yards from the stark concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. "I don't get paid for it," says Padilla, a 37 year-resident of the city with the least amount of park space per capita in the state. "But I get to use the park. It works out real good for us around here." During a chance encounter at the as-yet-unnamed triangle park that Padilla refers to as "my park," Maywood Mayor Sam Pena, a dapper man who has lived in the city all his 31 years, listens attentively as Padilla complains politely about neglect from city crews. A small smile crosses the mayor's face as Padilla describes his arrangement with his neighbor. "Now, that's ownership," the mayor says proudly.

It's the kind of community ownership that advocates and officials alike say is critical to the 20-year dream of reawakening the Los Angeles River, transforming it from an ignored concrete drainage ditch to the celebrated heart of a California state park, urban style. That dream recently received its single greatest push toward reality when Governor Gray Davis designated the Los Angeles River Parkway as a state park and allocated a whopping $88.5 million from the 1999 $2.1 billion parks bond, for its creation. Written by former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Assembly Speaker pro tem Fred Keeley the successful ballot initiative was championed by Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, State Senator Martha Escutia, State Assemblymember Marco Firebaugh, and County Supervisor Gloria Molina and a broad coalition of environmental groups, including TPL. The governor in one sweeping move accomplished what 20 years of toil by dedicated advocates and public agencies could not: it gave the river sorely needed status, attention, cash, and leadership.

"Governor Davis's initiative brought the issue of the Los Angeles River to the forefront," says Corey Brown, the Trust for Public Land's government affairs director, who grew up in Los Angeles. "Designating the river a state park provides the greatest unifying proposal ever in the effort to regreen this urban waterway."

The Los Angeles County's L.A. River Master Plan of 1996 calls for a continuous, tree-lined, paved, and lighted bikeway atop the river's banks for 51 miles, from its headwaters in the mountains of the San Fernando Valley until it drains into the sea in Long Beach. The bikeway would string together a necklace of green gems–existing regional and city parks, including a planned 65-acre state park in northeast Los Angeles and a proposed 20-acre park in north Long Beach. Along the greenway would be pocket parks, rest areas, informational and historic displays, and, in a few areas, access to shops and restaurants.

About 30 miles of bike path already are in place, though much of it is neither paved nor lighted. A half-dozen pocket parks now provide decorated gates and landscaped entrances to the river, replacing rusty cuts in the chain-link fence that told people the river was an undesirable and dangerous place to go. When the bikeway is completed, these small parks will serve as resting spots along the route. For now, they are places to sit in the shade after work, enjoy a picnic, or just see what lies beyond the river's concrete banks.

Existing regional parks eventually will be linked by the bikeway as well. The city-owned, 100-year-old Griffith Park, just north of downtown Los Angeles, encompasses 4,000 acres and includes a zoo, observatory, climb-aboard train museum, and 6,000-seat amphitheater. Surrounded by urban neighborhoods, it's less than a half-mile from the river itself. But the network of formidable freeways that surrounds the park makes it difficult to reach for anyone without wheels. "The region has these great swaths of open space," says TPL's Larry Kaplan, director of the Los Angeles field office. "But millions of people, particularly low-income people, never see them because they can't get to them."

The Trust for Public Land, which is working with other nonprofit organizations and public agencies to acquire land for urban parks along the river, hopes to change that by providing green space to the 13 cities along the river that make up some of the densest urban neighborhoods in the state.

Virtually no one involved is talking about removing all of the concrete that confines the river to its banks, or letting the river range unfettered across the Los Angeles basin as it once did. "This is an urban river," Kaplan says. "That's just one of the constraints we have to live with. But if you view the Los Angeles River as a framework in which to bring recreation areas and parks to people who now have next to none, it makes a lot of sense."

A River Tamed
Before 1938, the Los Angeles River was typical of southern California rivers–it dried up completely or meandered mildly in the summer, and swelled to a powerful and sometimes deadly torrent after heavy winter rains. A thousand years ago, up to 10,000 Native Americans lived along the river in a settlement near what is now Los Angeles City Hall. Spanish explorers founded the Pueblo de Los Angeles in 1781. In 1815, the river changed its course, washing away the pueblo and sending settlers scuttling for higher ground; ten years later the river rampaged again, returning to its earlier course. By 1861, three years after the city of Los Angeles incorporated, the river swelled with runoff from heavy storms and burst its banks with a fury that washed away much of the city.

In 1867, the railroad line reached Los Angeles and linked the East Coast to the West, bringing new Angelenos by the thousands, despite the ongoing flooding. As it had for millennia, the periodic flooding continued, causing $10 million in damage to the city's 900,000 water-weary residents in 1914. The industrializing city had had enough; discussions on how to control the river began.

In 1930, the Olmsted brothers, whose father had designed Central Park in New York, proposed a grand plan based on the city buying land around the river for a greenbelt. On either side of the river, 300-foot buffers, supported by levees, would have served the dual purpose of providing both public parkland and flood-control basins.

Transforming the Riverfront
"This is where the movement started," says TPL's Kaplan, extending his arm to encompass a shady lawn furnished with a few picnic tables. Just a few miles from Dodger Stadium and Griffith Park, TPL and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy built the first neighborhood park along the river, Elysian Valley Gateway Park.

Since then, TPL and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy have worked with the local nonprofit North East Trees to bring about other pocket parks in place of littered lots, burnt-out houses, and the river's fenced-off banks. "We find a site and then figure out a way to get it done," says Lynne Dwyer, a North East Trees co-founder.

In 1996, TPL negotiated to buy a corner lot adjacent to the river, where an abandoned, burnt-out house had stood. Standing atop a small outdoor amphitheater built with recycled concrete at what is now Steelhead Park, Dwyer admires the decorative iron gate depicting jumping steelhead trout. An interpretive sign explains that the De Anza Expedition walked along the Los Angeles River in 1776 on its way north to found the Presidio in San Francisco. She hopes that displaying some of the river's history will help draw in the community. "It's a broad vision for a parkway from the mountains to sea," she says. "But it's being put together at the community level, one piece at a time."

Just upstream, more community investment in the river winks at the visitor through the sometimes whimsical, sometimes wild art of Leo Limon. In the 1960s Limon began to transform a series of circular storm drain covers, with their triangular-shaped hinges, into the vibrant faces now known as the L.A. River Cats. He now works with the Atzlan Cultural Arts Foundation to hire at-risk youths to paint the river cats. "Taggers come to the river and write over the faces, then the public works crews come, blanking out the slate," Limon explains. "Just like live cats–they come and go. It's the life of the neighborhood."

While pocket parks and community gateways will make the river more people-friendly, the larger work lies in refashioning more than 100 acres at two former train yards along the river's banks. But the plans face obstacles: resistance against removing concrete at one site, a developer's plan for an industrial park at the other, and contamination at both.

At the massive 150-acre Taylor Yard, TPL may soon begin negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad to buy about 65 acres for a park that will become the centerpiece of the new parkway. Here, in a nod to the Olmsteds' original vision, the Friends of the Los Angeles River, an advocacy group formed in 1987, has been pushing for a plan to remove some of the concrete. This would allow the river to flow naturally as it enters the park, with catch basins inside the park to capture floodwaters. The Friends' vision for the park includes ballfields and other outdoor recreation facilities, in addition to a river promenade and picnic area. Governor Davis allocated $45 million to buy the land and build the park. Although no ground testing has yet been done, the site's almost century-long history as a railroad maintenance yard suggests that contamination is substantial.

Across the river, TPL is negotiating with the owner of a glass warehouse for a site where 300 feet of riverfront, now covered in black asphalt and blocked off by old buildings, would be reborn into green space. Governor Davis allocated $5 million for the Marsh Street project. "It will be up to the people of the city to decide exactly what they want to do with it," says TPL's Project Manager Michael Ramirez. "Then this neighborhood will have a park." Ramirez is working to acquire parkland up and down the river.

The governor's budget for the new state parkway also includes $2.5 million for Maywood, one of a group of densely populated and park-poor cities southeast of Los Angeles, where the river makes its final run to Long Beach and the sea. TPL is working with Maywood Mayor Pena, the county, and owners of four parcels adjacent to the river to create a seven-acre regional park, which Pena proudly calls Maywood Riverfront Park. "It's just taken on a life of its own," Pena says. "Our community needs this park."

Pena, part of a growing cadre of young Latino leadership in the city, envisions part of the park occupying space where a long narrow warehouse now sits a stone's throw from the water. A neighboring parcel designated a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency and an empty lot where workers recently demolished a former paint business will become part of the park as well. So will the little triangle park, the area's first patch of green. Pena says he is not particular about whether the park becomes soccer fields or any other kind of organized playing field. With only eight acres of park space for 34,000 people–about one-tenth the state standard of four parkland acres per thousand people–Pena just wants the site to be open and accessible. "Just green it," he says.

TPL is now surveying Maywood's neighbors in nearby Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Southgate, Lynwood, and Paramount in the hope that these cities will catch some of Maywood's enthusiasm for transforming the banks of the Los Angeles River into greenway. TPL hopes the communities will choose a half-dozen sites on the river's banks where they can work to create their own parks that would reflect their cities' personalities. TPL has already received a $400,000 loan from the Sierra Club's Quercus Fund, as well as a half-million-dollar grant from the Irvine Foundation to begin to bring the parkway to these areas, known as the Gateway Cities.

The designation of the Los Angeles River Parkway as a state park and the funding it brings will catapult the project into high gear, advocates believe. But it is still the communities that will decide how the parkway ultimately will look in their neighborhoods, and whether it is a success, says TPL's Corey Brown. "The state's support takes the vision up to a higher level," Brown says. "But we still need community ownership."

In the 1990s, the population of Los Angeles county exceeded 9 million, and it's expected to increase by 2 million in the next decade or so. The long-held vision for an urban greenway in the nation's second-largest city will go a long way toward improving the quality of life for residents of areas so heavily populated and paved. "Almost every great city has a renowned open space: San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, New York City has Central Park," says Brown. "This is our chance to make one for Los Angeles."

Land & People, Fall, 2000

Joanna Miller is a former Los Angeles Times environmental writer. She currently teaches journalism and writes freelance from her home in Simi Valley.

For more information about TPL's work in Los Angeles, visit TPL's Los Angeles River Greenway Progam page